Walking around South Providence; or Selma, Alabama; or Overtown, Miami; as we did while shooting, we could see the effects of poverty first hand — streets of closed businesses, decaying buildings, poorly equipped schools. These are communities that need help and support from their elected officials and from government. Yet, ironically, these are the communities that get the least attention from legislators, because their political clout is vastly reduced.
To have political influence, you have to have a voice. And in many of these communities, poor education, drug problems, high levels of incarceration, and felony disfranchisement are diluting and permanently eroding the voter base, creating a cycle of poverty and sparking fears of an intergenerational culture of nonvoting and nonparticipation.
How much does felony disfranchisement contribute to the problem? A study carried out by the Rhode Island Family Life Center found that one in five black men and one in eleven Hispanic men are barred from voting statewide. In some urban communities, like South Providence, more than a tenth of all residents are disfranchised, and more than 40 per cent of black men aged between eighteen and 34 cannot vote due to a felony conviction.
A similar study in Atlanta by the Sentencing Project found that one of every eight black males in Georgia is disfranchised because of a felony conviction. In Atlanta, that figure rises to one in seven. The report says that in eleven Atlanta neighborhoods, more than a tenth of black men are disfranchised. And it notes that a third of black male disfranchisement in Georgia is as a result of a felony conviction for a drug offense.
A study on the impact of felony disfranchisement on voting power in the Latino community in ten targeted states found that significant numbers of Latinos are prohibited from voting by felony disfranchisement laws, and that Latinos are more likely to be disfranchised than the general population.
The conclusion we can draw from these studies is that felony disfranchisement affects the ability of communities — especially minority communities — to express their political voice. The Atlanta study points out that disfranchisement "also affects public safety and reintegration through actual and symbolic barriers to social participation."
Says the report: "This disenfranchisement effect contributes to a vicious cycle within public policy development that further disadvantages low-income communities of color. The first means by which this occurs is through decisions on resource allocation. In citywide decision-making regarding spending for schools or social services, residents of certain neighborhoods will have considerably more political influence than others, solely because "one person, one vote" is distorted through the loss of voting rights.
"At a state level, beleaguered communities are affected through a diminished impact on public policy. Consider, for example, the disproportionate effect of drug policy on African American communities. Nationally, the vast increase in incarcerated drug offenders, fueled in large part by a heavy emphasis on law enforcement patterns and punitive sentencing policies, has had a highly skewed impact on communities of color. Many political leaders in these communities are concerned about the problem of drug abuse, but have called for a more balanced approach that emphasizes prevention and treatment. Yet, because there are fewer voting residents in these neighborhoods — due in significant part to drug policies — these voices have increasingly less political influence."
Do we really want to create communities that, through generations of non-participation, don't know about or care about voting or participating in the democratic process? How will that affect our society? Can we confidently say we have a working democracy if so many are excluded from being part of it?